Bruschetta, 3 ways, for a satisfying picnic main dish

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T here are few dishes more elemental and satisfying than bruschetta. A mainstay at many Italian restaurants, it’s an appetizer comprising slices of grilled bread adorned with any number of toppings. According to Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, bruschetta likely originated in ancient Rome. Olive growers who brought their produce there to be pressed would sample the flavor of the fresh-squeezed oil on toasted slices of bread. (The word is derived from the Roman verb bruscare, meaning “to roast over coals.”)

I like to make bruschetta on my stovetop grill at home during the colder months. It’s a winning accompaniment to just about any soup or stew and a reliable favorite with the family. Having recently come to the conclusion that there was no good reason why this simple and tasty concoction should be limited to an appetizer or side dish, I have here chosen to cast bruschetta as the star of a summer picnic.

As noted, bruschetta is simple to make. But you need to work with high-quality ingredients if you want it to turn out beautifully. Start with a loaf of fresh and crusty rustic bread. Then brush each slice of bread with your very best extra-virgin olive oil before it heads for the grill. When the bread comes off the grill, and while it’s still hot, rub one side of each slice with a cut clove of garlic. Then top it off with a light sprinkling of sea salt. By the way, this technique works just as well using a grill pan in the kitchen as it does with a grill outdoors.

This recipe spells out three different toppings, all vaguely Mediterranean: a white bean salad with fresh fennel thickened with mashed beans so that the filling sticks to the bread; smoked salmon rillettes — finely-chopped salmon flavored with capers, lemon and fresh herbs and bound with sour cream; and a chopped Greek salad. Again, I recommend using your best extra-virgin olive oil for the dressings. Each topping yields roughly two cups, which should be ample to top four large slices of grilled bread.

But bruschetta is nothing if not basic, meaning that just about any filling you’d ordinarily put between two slices of bread will also work as a topping for bruschetta: egg salad, tuna salad, runny cheese, hummus, grilled vegetables, you name it. Just bring the toppings in jars to the picnic, step aside, and watch everyone go for theirs. No one’s going to wonder where the sandwiches are when bruschetta is on the picnic menu.